Last Saturday, Federal marshals seized the car, furniture, and other personal possessions of a Palm Beach sheriff’s sergeant who was found liable by a jury for shooting an unarmed man, leaving him paralyzed.
The shooting occurred in September 2013. Dontrell Stephens, then 20, was riding his bicycle erratically through traffic in West Palm Beach when he caught the attention of Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Sgt. Adams Lin.
Lin followed Stephens, and later said that he’d planned to give the man a ticket for not bicycling properly. He also acknowledged that he had not seen Stephens around the neighborhood before, and admitted he found him suspicious.
He intended to stop him, ask for identification and find out where he had come from and where he was going. He considered frisking him. But Lin, who is of Asian descent, denied racially profiling Stephens, who is black, and wore his hair in long dreadlocks.
When Stephens turned down a side road, Lin followed, stepping on the gas, turning on the siren and then the lights. He thought the way Stephens rode his bike was suspicious. He thought the way Stephens got off his bike was suspicious.
And four seconds after Lin got out of his patrol car, he shot Stephens four times, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Lin said he opened fire because Stephens was reaching in his back waistband, possibly for a gun.
There was no gun.
The dashcam video footage shows how rapidly the shooting occurred.
Lin fired four bullets, three of which remain lodged in Stephens’ body – two in his arm and one in his spine. The one in his spine left Stephens paralyzed and wheelchair-bound.
It only took a federal jury 3 1/2 hours of deliberation to decide that Lin used excessive force and violated Stephens’ civil rights when he shot him.
The jury apparently rejected Lin’s claim that he had made an “objectively reasonable mistake” when he shot Stephens.
Stephens, who grew up in poverty and never finished high school, was awarded $22.4 million. The sheriff’s office was also found responsible.
Lin was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by sheriff’s investigators and local prosecutors, however, and was later promoted to sergeant.
It is rare for police to be found responsible for shootings, but this case has another very unusual twist.
The Sun Sentinel explains:
In November, U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Seltzer ruled that none of Lin’s $82,400 in wages should be garnished to help pay off the judgment because he proved he was “head of a family” since he provides more than half of the support for his 6-year-old daughter.
But his possessions, which will wind up on the auction block, are not protected.
Last Saturday, federal marshals seized Lin’s personal belongings — including his car, clothes, television, and furniture — to help pay for Stephens’ expenses.
Attorney Jack Scarola, who won the verdict for Stephens, said he got permission from a federal magistrate to take the unusual step of seizing Lin’s property to pay off the judgment that is against both the deputy and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Also from the Sun Sentinel:
The Sheriff’s Office is appealing the jury verdict. If the agency is unsuccessful, Stephen’s lawyers said they can seek $200,000 from the agency. Money after that amount must be approved by the Florida Legislature.
Scarola said he warned the Sheriff’s Office ahead of time that he’d seize property if the Sheriff’s Office didn’t pay the first $200,000 of the jury award. He said they declined.
Scarola said when Lin’s things are sold at auction, the Marshals’ fee would be paid first, along with the movers and storage facility, and tow truck company and driver.
“This is all before Dontrell gets the first dollar,” he said. “If anything remains it begins to satisfy the … judgment.”
John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, told myPalmBeachPost that he’s outraged by the move:
In 37 years in law enforcement, he said he’s never heard of an officer’s belongings being taken to be sold on the auction block.
“It makes us have to think every time when we go out to do our job: Are we going to be civilly liable? Do we have to rent all of our property?” he said. “This is a bad, bad precedent.”
Maybe – just maybe – if police knew they may have to personally pay damages to people they wrongfully shoot, they’d be less likely to resort to reckless use of excessive force.
Scarola said he was left with no other options, as Stephens remains destitute. He said Sheriff Ric Bradshaw could have protected Lin from having his assets seized by paying Stephens the $200,000 he will be legally obligated to pay if the verdict is upheld on appeal:
“The sheriff was offered the opportunity to protect his employee and avoid the seizure,” Scarola said. “He declined not to do it.”
Attorney Val Rodriguez, who is not connected to the case but has filed similar cases against the sheriff’s office, said the attorneys representing Lin and Bradshaw may have been able to offer to post a bond while the case is being appealed:
The bond, typically for a percentage of the amount awarded, would have protected Lin’s belonging from seizure, he said.
Because such a request wasn’t filed with U.S. Magistrate Barry Seltzer, he had no choice but to approve Scarola’s request, Rodriguez said. Attorneys representing Lin and Bradshaw could ask Seltzer to stop Lin’s property from being sold at public auction, but it may be too late, he said.
Scarola explained that the law clearly allows him to ask that Lin’s personal property be seized, and the approval was given in a private meeting with the federal magistrate. The proceedings, by law, are secret so property authorized for seizure doesn’t disappear before it can be seized.
Under Florida law – even if the multi-million dollar verdict is upheld – the most the sheriff’s office could be required to pay is $200,000. That’s the most governments can be forced to pay for wrongdoing in the state.
To get more, Scarola would have to persuade the state legislature to pass a claims bill, lifting the cap.
For now, Scarola just wants Bradshaw to pay Stephens the first installment:
“The sheriff’s office put Dontrell Stephens in a wheelchair for life and they know the desperate circumstances he is in,” he said. “There is no legal justification for refusing that first $200,000. None.”
Last October, Stephens was arrested for selling drugs, and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office posted his mug shot on social media – a move that many say was done as an act of retaliation for the lawsuit.
The Facebook post read: “If you sell drugs near a DAY CARE CENTER you are going to get #BUSTED.”
Ian Goldstein, Stephens’ criminal defense attorney, told PalmBeachPost that his client was “absolutely singled out”:
“It shows there’s a motivation there,” Goldstein said of the posts Friday, after representing Stephens during his first-appearance hearing on the charges. “I don’t think it’s unrelated to the fact that there’s a $23 million lawsuit currently pending against the sheriff.”
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office uses Facebook to ask the public for help identifying crime suspects, to share information about missing people, for community outreach, and for feel-good stories such as toy drives. Posts about arrests are rare, and the post about Stephens is the only one about a drug-related arrest.
Perhaps if the sheriff’s office gave Stephens an installment payment, he wouldn’t have to resort to selling drugs to survive.
Scarola said that Stephens has mounting medical bills, and his Social Security disability checks run out before the end of each month. He said his client sometimes doesn’t have enough to eat and has been living with friends because he has no place of his own. Scarola said that he’s concerned that his Stephens may not live long enough to see a payout while he waits for the decision of the appeals court, and then for the Florida Legislature to pass a claims bill to OK the money.
“There is good that came from the lawsuit,” he said mentioning the recent excessive use of force settlements with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. “But Dontrell is paying a staggering price.”
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